Lead us up beyond light

by Dionysius the Areopagite

English version by Ivan M. Granger

Lead us up beyond light,
beyond knowing and unknowing,
to the topmost summit of truth,

where the mysteries lie hidden,
unchanging and absolute,
in the dazzling darkness
of the secret silence.
All light is outshined
by the intensity of their shade.

The senses are flooded, the mind made blind
by such unseen beauty
beyond all beauty.

-- from This Dance of Bliss: Ecstatic Poetry from Around the World, Edited by Ivan M. Granger

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

You may not be familiar with them, but these lines are hugely important in the history of Western mysticism and spirituality. Virtually all European esoteric traditions have drawn inspiration and meaning from them. So take a moment to reread them and consider what is being said and why Western mystics have been inspired by them through the centuries.

In particular, that phrase about the "dazzling darkness," like a Christian koan, is contemplated endlessly and keeps reappearing in esoteric writings.

Dionysius is saying something about knowledge and the limitations of knowledge, using the metaphor of light and darkness.

Lead us up beyond light,
beyond knowing and unknowing,
to the topmost summit of truth...

We might say that intellectual knowledge is knowledge dependent on things being visible, in the light. But clearly Dionysius feels that such knowledge does not attain the "topmost summit of truth."

There is another level of knowing, deeper, more obscure, yet all-encompassing. This is the knowledge sought by the mystic. This is the knowledge found within deep inner silence. This is the knowledge that connects us with genuine truth. Amidst this darkness, the truth shines.

...where the mysteries lie hidden,
unchanging and absolute,
in the dazzling darkness
of the secret silence.

But this language of darkness and blindness and unknowing as descriptions of this ultimate knowledge is more than evocative metaphor and playful contradiction.

That wonderful phrase, the "dazzling darkness," is a reference to a very real state of awareness experienced in deep communion when the mind has settled completely into stillness and no longer projects a conceptual overlay upon reality.

We can even say that seeing in the normal sense stops, while perception opens as if for the first time. A person is no longer seen as a person, a table is no longer seen as a table. Surfaces and categories -- the foundation of mundane perception -- become ephemeral, dreamlike, insubstantial. One stops witnessing the surface level of reality in the common sense, and this can be compared to blindness or darkness. Yet everything shines! Everything is seen to be radiant with a living interpenetrating light. And the same light shines in everything.

This is the dazzling darkness of Dionysius. This is why many mystics assert they no longer even see the world and, instead, only see God. It is not that they bump into furniture when they walk across a room; perception on the mundane level doesn't stop (except in the most ecstatic states), but surfaces take on a thin or unreal quality; it only occupies a minimal level of the awareness. It is as if the world everyone always assumes to be the real world, the visible world, is actually a world of shadow, but underlying that is an unseen world of brilliance and indescribably beauty.

Our senses are flooded, our minds blinded
by such unseen beauty
beyond all beauty.

This is the dazzling darkness sought by mystics throughout the ages.


Speaking of darkness, it is the time of Halloween, Samhain in Celtic tradition, el Dia de los Muertos.

As a child, Halloween was always one of my favorite holidays. I loved the masks and costumes, toying with my identity, hiding behind what is seen. I loved the time of year, the chill breeze and thick sweaters, bare branches with a few bright leaves, the blue daylight illuminating it all. And, I have to admit, I loved the giddy, creeping sense of death... and the implied question of what lay beyond. Spirits, magic, monsters, and nighttime, they evoked in me a childish delight in the sense that there was something more to the world, something hidden, secret, another reality in the shadows. I felt the holiday tugging at me, my goosebumps an invitation into the unknown...

This is considered to be a time of year when the veil between this world and the Otherworld thins, when we can reconnect with the spirits of our ancestors, when can gain unexpected insight. It is a time of magic and reconnection and stepping into the unknown.

This is the time of year (in the northern hemisphere) when the light of summer and the harvest season recedes, the days grow shorter, and the darkness of winter takes ascendance. This is the good darkness that balances the year. With darker, shorter, colder days, we are less active and turn inward. It is a time that reminds us to return to the dark cave of home and self. It is in this internal, inturning time that we gain insight and strength and, through endurance, find ourselves renewed and ready for the new light to come in springtime. This darkness is the time of spiritual practice that prepares us for the renewed light and life of springtime. For only in darkness does new life gestate. Only in darkness do our eyes learn to see.

So let's celebrate those who came before us and made a way for us in the world. Let's celebrate the infinitely unknown possibilities yet available to us. And let's celebrate the good darkness -- and the light and life we discover there!

Recommended Books: Dionysius the Areopagite

This Dance of Bliss: Ecstatic Poetry from Around the World The Essential Mystics: Selections from the World's Great Wisdom Traditions Christian Mystics: Their Lives and Legacies throughout the Ages

Lead us up beyond